Safer Cooking: Part 2! Cookware Options and Risks

By Kristie Turck •  Published 02/09/12 •  6 min read

As a follow up to my piece on Cast Iron Cookware and Care, I wanted to continue my dialogue with Kristen from MightyNest who has some deeper knowledge on what’s safe in the kitchen and what carries some risks. She has really done some homework on this topic so I wanted to share this with you.

1. There are a lot of “green” pans and cookware on the market. How does a consumer know which ones are truly safer?  

MightyNest: This one is tricky as well.  The first step is to avoid Teflon, or other conventional non-stick coatings  a synthetic polymer called polytetrafluoroetheylene (PTFE), also known as Teflon. Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), is a chemical used to bond the coating to the pan. Toxic fumes released from heated teflon-coated pans (at medium to high temperatures) cause enough air pollution to kill a pet bird!  These fumes can also cause people to develop flu-like symptoms called “Teflon Flu.”

The “green” pans we have researched say the information is proprietary and won’t disclose what the polymer they are using is.  It is still a synthetic coating, although a better option that teflon, I don’t feel like I can fully recommend it since I don’t understand exactly what they’re using. At MightyNest we only sell products that we know everything that is in them, so we haven’t pursued these products.   Many companies explain the coating as “ceramic.”  You would still want to verify that the pan has no PFOA’s or PTFE’s, and they didn’t simply add ceramic particles to the coating.  If you find a “green” pan you are interested in contact the manufacturer and try to ask as many questions as you can and see if you feel comfortable enough with the responses to make a purchase.

2. Are there risks or concerns about coated cast iron, ceramic coatings, enamels, etc? Should we worry about lead?

MN: As  far as I know there are not any health concerns with enamel coated cast iron.  This type of cookware is made by fusing powdered glass to the metal, it is heated and hardens creating a smooth coating – essentially glass coated metal – on the interior cooking surface.  Although, I have read that manufacturers can add other oxides (which may or may not be toxic, depending on what they are) to the enamel to alter some of its properties.  So, if you are purchasing this type of cookware you may want to inquire from the company if they had added any oxides to the enamel. I know that Lodge brand  does not add any heavy metals to their enamel.  Sometimes vibrant (red or yellow) colored glazes used on the exterior of these pans can contain trace levels of lead, so it would be important to know if the product had undergone any safety testing for lead.  I know that both Lodge and Le Crueset products undergo lead testing and are compliant with California Prop 65 levels for lead and cadmium.

3. What are some better alternative materials to use while cooking?

glass baking dishMN: After spending considerable time choosing and preparing nutritious food for our families, it can be pretty frustrating to learn that the products we are using to cook, bake, eat and store food with may actually put our families’ health at risk.  Materials such as Teflon, BPA, PVC lead, aluminum, phthalates, and melamine are commonly found in everyday kitchenware products yet have been tied to disturbing health issues.  The good news is there are many safer alternatives as well as things you can avoid.

For cooking on the stovetop:  

For baking: 

For storing leftovers:

4.What are some concerns associated with cooking using plastic utensils? 

MN:The concern with using plastic cooking utensils is that one of the main factors that causes chemicals to leach from plastic is heat.  By now most people know to avoid BPA when it comes to food and plastics. Additionally a recent study in Environmental Health Perspectives (LINK) found that plastics (even BPA-free plastics) can release hormone-disrupting chemicals due to heat and wear and tear.  Also hot acidic foods accelerate chemical leaching in plastics.  Also actual plastic pieces can flake off utensils and end up in food.

5. Some spatulas and spoons are made with polyurethane plastic. Is this safe? What’s better?

MN: I am not familiar with polyurethane plastic.  Since  we don’t really carry items made from plastic at MightyNest it’s not something I’ve come across in my research.  Polyurethane is a tricky chemical, it has many different forms and varies in toxicity depending on the format.  I imagine the polyurethane is added to make the plastic more durable and heat resistant, which would be better than a less stable plastic that would start to degrade with heat but I can’t say for sure what it’s safety level would be.  I say, err on the side of caution and use natural materials whenever possible like wood, bamboo or stainless steel utensils.  Another material that would be a safer alternative to plastic utensils is food-grade silicone.  Although man-made, it is based on natural materials (silicon from sand and oxygen molecules), and the manufacturers we work with have not added any toxic materials.  Food-grade or medical-grade silicone is much more chemically stable than plastic and is relatively inert, meaning it does not leach chemicals the way plastics do.

A big THANK YOU to Kristen from MightyNest.com for helping me sort this information out.  It’s nice to work with people who are as passionate about living a healthy life as I am. Thank you!!!